The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at: http://users.bigpond.net.au/frsparky/r083.htm
s083g02 St Michael and All Angels 29/9/02
"You will see ... angels ... ascending and descending ..." John 1.54
I think that we have probably past the time when the generally accepted thesis - that science will soon be able to explain everything - remains generally accepted. Again and again, for all the wonderful advances of science and technology, we still find that what we are yet to discover still stretches out in front of us. God, in Genesis, invites us to have dominion over creation, and I like to think that the joy of scientific enquiry is wrapped up in this.
I myself was brought up in a scientific framework, and it was when I did Physics II at university and discovered Heizenberg's Uncertainty Principle that I began to realise that there were limits to what we can know and measure. Yet the engineers' discipline of finding the right question to ask and knowing where to find the answer have not left me, and they are things I have tried to bring to my theology. In my experience often people only ask the questions they "know" the answer to.
So the people who come to the door to talk about religion begin by asking a question which any display of uncertainty from the householder will trigger their spiel of their answer wrapped in certainty. Of course if the question is not one which worries the hearer, but something else, the "answer" given in fact does nothing for the reluctant recipient. Indeed the average person answering the door to a missionary is hardly likely to be concerned about the likelihood of their own personal salvation. The average person answering the door is much more likely to be worried about the damage inflicted on society by religious fanatics, than their own personal salvation - and this is indeed a *good* thing.
I was talking to someone - quite a while ago now - who had moved in their employment from a Church agency to a secular one. In the Church agency, staff were scrupulous in not talking about things religious to clientele. It was a function of their funding from government that people were accepted for who they were and were helped as they needed. However when the person moved into the secular arena, no such strictures applied. Most of the staff were, in fact, regular Church attenders, and while they certainly didn't bring up the subject, they often found themselves speaking about prayer, faith and things of the spirit to their clientele, because the clientele themselves raised them.
Of course, I quite agree with the approach of the Church agency and the government regulations. We should be accepting people as they are. But when we don't have to tiptoe around the eggshells of religion we can relate as people to others and I suspect that we would be surprised at the multitude and diversity of "religious" experiences "ordinary" people have. The reality is that so often the Church has a habit of dictating which experiences are "kosher" and which are not. People are loathe to talk about their own experiences lest they find those experiences devalued or dismissed. All people know well the dictum: "Do not cast your pearls before swine" even if they are not sure who said it :-)
I was speaking to a priest in another work situation, who found that the opposition to any new developments he suggested - the opposition he experienced was not from those whose connections to religion were tenuous, but from those whose connections to the Anglican church were very strong!
I was grateful to have been alerted to this vignette of Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury designate, which was sent on "Propertalk". "This article from the Guardian highlights his aims:
"And before all else he spoke of his responsibilities as a priest charged with the duty of offering "whatever I can discern of God's perspective on the world around - something which involves both challenge and comfort". Even as the Archbishop of Canterbury, he said, he needed "to be grounded in the hopes and concerns of ordinary local Christian communities".
"Intriguingly, after that he turned not to the needs of the Church of England or the Anglican Communion but of a secular society "which, while it may show a good deal of nostalgia, fascination and even hunger for the spiritual, is generally sceptical of Christianity and the church".
"His mission as archbishop to the agnostics was later amplified when he spoke of how he had greatly valued "conversations over the years with those rather on the edges of the church, people in the worlds of the arts, medicine, psychology, who are eager to explore what Christian faith means. There can be many gifts and many surprises in such meetings, and I hope they will continue.""
Jesus and the Church talk about angels and the first thing we could notice that while "God is one" (and three) there is a plurality of other beings. The vital difference between the Judaeo-Christian pantheon and the Greek or Roman pantheon is in the Greek and Roman traditions the gods themselves compete. Such a situation leaves humanity at the mercy of capricious gods - one is left hoping one will back the winner! We are told, in the epistle reading, of war in heaven but there are only two protagonists. Either good or evil wins out.
Some people have had particularly remarkable experiences of the divine. A priest I know and trust had a vision of St George. Some people see the divine in music, others in the garden, others in the wonders in the sky, others in the intricacies of the microscopic universe. Many people see meaning and purpose in their relationships one with another.
There in fact would be few, if any, who do not hold some overriding experience or principle which has "come to them" as determinative in their lives. Each would say that these are experiences of God.
And of course had Jesus not been raised from the dead, the efforts of the religious establishment to stop Jesus associating with people other than themselves would have succeeded, and this very diversity of experience would be entirely invalid.
Jesus talks about "guardian angels" in Matthew 18.10: "See that you do not despise ..." The sense is quite clearly threatening. Everyone has their own personal advocate in heaven, beholding the face of our heavenly Father. Ill treatment one of another, even despising another, is noted.
I wonder if the words from St Paul from a couple of weeks ago leapt out at you as they did to me. On Sunday 24, in Romans 14, Paul says to his readers: "Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand." (verse 4). It is clear that Paul has confidence in a God who can lift people up, people who are servants of another. This is a quite remarkable statement, and one that deserves to be recognised by us.
Diversity is not an evil to eradicate, but a strength to embrace, for by doing so we open ourselves to the multitude of angels other than our own, and rather than the gospel and existence of God depending on our experience alone, these are confirmed in so many and various ways, by people who do not have to be cajoled into telling their story.
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